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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Navajo Uranium Miners

Air Date: Week of

Uranium mining in the southwest shut down a generation ago, but not soon enough for dozens of Navajo and other miners who died of lung cancer and many others suffering from respiratory diseases. A new mining company wants to start up uranium mining again and has promised it can do it safely. Living On Earth’s Sandy Tolan, who covered the uranium mining story in 1982, returned to Navajo country for an update.


CURWOOD: One day in 1950, a Navajo man named Paddy Martinez picked up a few yellow rocks while herding sheep east of Crownpoint, New Mexico. His handful of ore turned out to be uranium. And the find, together with discoveries in Utah, sparked a series of mining booms that changed life forever in the Southwest. By the mid-50s the entire region was firmly entrenched in the nuclear age. But as hundreds of families who mined the uranium would later find out, the yellow ore was poison. In the generation since the old mine shut down, dozens of Navajo miners and others have died of lung cancer. Many more suffer from debilitating respiratory diseases. And recently, a new mining company has been approved to go after the yellow rock. Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan covered the uranium mining story in 1982. Sixteen years later he returned to Navajo country.

(A jazz band plays "All of Me")

TOLAN: Late afternoon, at an open-air steak house just north of Navajo Country, in Mexican Hat, Utah, a veteran uranium worker wraps large calloused hands around a can of Coors, remembering the boom days.

HOWE: There was a market for uranium, and people were just making a living with it. They’d just go out and find one and get a lease on it and go mine it.

TOLAN: Clint Howe drove the uranium trucks from the mines to the mills. He hauled his rig to the good ore seams, drilling into the belts of uranium up in Utah and Colorado and down in the Navajo reservation.

HOWE: All over the Four Corners, west of Blanding and down along the Grand Canyon, Arizona.

TOLAN: Clint Howe looks south to the San Juan River and Navajo country just beyond. There lie the old mines and the piles of radioactive waste tailings from the mills. Mr. Howe drilled many mines on Navajo land. It seemed like good work back then, he remembers, when jobs were otherwise scarce. That was before the sickness came.

HOWE: Well, things were pretty lax back then (laughs). They didn't have a lot of safety standards. They were dusty, they were smoky, the air was bad. A lot of this on the reservation was done that way. If you breathe dust you breathe rocks, and it's got the uranium in it, and it embeds in you and it stays there. And that's where a lot of that problem comes from.

(Band continues playing; fade to highway sounds)

TOLAN: Across the river the air turns warm. So does the color of the land. Red buttes rise out of the desert floor. In the distance, lines of rain arc gently to land like a soft white brush. I recall the first time I traveled this country 16 years ago on my first real reporting assignment.

(A tape plays; voices)

TOLAN: I dug out my old tapes from that journey. Driving through Monument Valley, I listen again to Big John and Tommy Dee, former uranium miners. Strong men they were, with powerful shoulders and hacking coughs.

(A man speaks in Navajo)

TRANSLATOR: We used to blast the rocks just before lunch break. But when we went back in, we could still smell all the dust. There was no ventilation in the tunnel. There were no safety masks. Coveralls were not required.

(Second man speaks in Navajo)

TRANSLATOR: When I was on the job, only white men dressed for safety and went down into the tunnel. They never told us, they never asked us to wear these things. We did talk about it; maybe it's dangerous. Why is he wearing all those protective clothes? Why don't they do the same for us?

TOLAN: I was 26, fresh out of college, and astounded. Big John and Tommy D. had worked in the narrow shafts bored into the sides of hills. In all a thousand mines were dug across the reservation. In these dusty, unventilated dog holes, miners breathed in radon gas, whose decay elements cause cancer; and silica, which can lead to deadly respiratory disease. The government wanted the ore for nuclear arms. They contracted with small companies and big ones like Kerr McGee, but no one told the miners it was dangerous. I remember Big John and Tommy Dee back in '82, both sitting there looking stunned.

(A man speaks in Navajo)

TRANSLATOR: We'd go home with our clothes stained yellow with uranium. To us it looked like the corn pollen we used in our ceremonies. We used to drink the waters from the mines. It was cool.

(Second man speaks in Navajo)

TRANSLATOR: When I started working for the mine I was normal, healthy, and young. Now my lungs are no good any more. I cannot do a job as a man, a normal man, any more. A lot of my coworkers have died, and now the doctors tell me that there is a lot of big spots on my lungs, the size of golf balls, all over my lungs.

(First man speaks in Navajo)

TRANSLATOR: People tell me not to take it so hard, but sometimes, when you're in so much pain, it's hard not to think about it. To think about your grandchildren, your wife, your family, and the suffering you are going through. Sometimes I cannot bear these things.

(More voices speak on tape; a voice says, "I'm very, very sorry.")

TOLAN: September 1998. I switch off the old tapes and turn off the main road and into a deep red valley. Pinion and juniper cling high to steep rock bluffs. This is Cove, Arizona, ground zero of the old Navajo uranium district. Dozens of mines are scattered through the hills above us. My guide is Dorothy Jonie [phonetic spelling] with the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers.

JONIE: I know a lot of people are sick, and I wish I would help them out, like, cure them, but there's nothing.

TOLAN: In the 16 years since I met Big John, a lot of people have gone, like Dorothy's father and the fathers of her coworkers. They've succumbed to diseases with no names in the Navajo language.

(To Jonie) What's the word for cancer, that people use for cancer in Navajo?

JONIE: Chlodonatzeeyee, they call it.

TOLAN: How does that translate exactly?

JONIE: No medicine or method will ever cure that disease...

(People call out "Hello.")

TOLAN: Our first stop in Cove is the new senior and daycare center. In the cafeteria we meet Rosalyn Aguirree. She's 38. She just lost her father.

AGUIRREE: There was no cure, no cure for this disease that he had. All that fiber stuff was just penetrated in his lungs. He was spitting out blood, and all his bone got infected. He was built big, he was built real strong and muscular, and real healthy to aging, like, 20 years in just a few short months. I think he went down like maybe eight sizes in his clothes. He just looked like a skeleton with the skin over it. You just watch him die and there's nothing you can do.

(A car door shuts)

TOLAN: At the Cove chapter house, the local body of government, Dorothy and I go to look for miners. But there aren't any around. Tribal worker Nelson Yazzie says most of them are gone.

YAZZIE [phonetic spelling]: 'Cause I lost a lot of good people around here, and there's only a few left, men are living around here.

TOLAN: We stand in front of a hand-drawn map of the Cove chapter. Nelson traces his hand through the valleys, down the dirt roads in the canyons. He rests his finger on the map, right where his mother's house is, and turns toward me.

YAZZIE: My dad passed away when I was two years old. I never knew him. I think most of his time he spent time in the hospital. A lot of these elderlies that we have, there are a lot of widows. My mama is a widow; two of my aunts are widows. Most of them, the ladies, the elderly women that live in here, they're widows. And because of the mine. There's only mostly, like, 10 or 20 percent left.

TOLAN: Of course, not all of those deaths were from uranium. A lot of miners just got older, died from other causes. But lung cancer rates for Navajo miners, like other underground miners, are more than triple what they should be. And most Navajo miners didn't smoke. Death rates for tuberculosis and respiratory diseases are more than 2-1/2 times the average.

YAZZIE: We didn't know what we were really going against.

TOLAN: Cove feels like a place ravaged by war. In fact, the men of Cove were foot soldiers in a global conflict. Speaking little or no English, they worked the dogholes, picking and shoveling and carting out radioactive rocks to be ground into a powder called yellowcake, placed inside nuclear warheads and pointed at the Soviet Union. It was medieval labor in the nuclear age.

YAZZIE: I feel real bad about it. Real bad about it. There's a real, real big scar in the heart, that the federal government never told us what kind of effect it was going to have on our fathers. So we see that we've just been used. For us, you see, I stare, and there's a scar in the heart.

TOLAN: In the tremendous quiet out on the land, the widows of Cove have had a lot of time to think.

BENNALLY: I was just mad and mad to the government, saying what in the world is going on with those people? Whoever are the governments? Boy, they really got me.

TOLAN: Anna Mae Bennally lives in a country of sage and loamy soil. To the south a rough butte juts out like a red face; Rock Nose, the Navajos call it. It's near Black Horse Wash, up from Crying Mexican Rock.

BENNALLY: Our flesh and blood are the same as they are, these government, and I can't see why they want for us to suffer more and die of the cancer; they call it uranium cancer. So I want for them to do something for us, pay us back for what they have done to our good lives.

TOLAN: In 1979 a group of miners sued the U.S. government, claiming negligence and demanding compensation. Repeated medical studies overwhelmingly linked underground uranium mining to increased cancers. But the United States argued it was not responsible, even though it was government demand for uranium that sparked the boom. The case went to the Supreme Court. The miners lost. Eventually, Congress stepped in, authorizing compensation to families of uranium workers. But the government told Anna Mae Bennally her case wasn't strong enough. Her claims were denied, along with dozens of others. Now, Congress may pass another law to make the payments come easier. Mrs. Bennally hopes for her share as partial compensation for the dark, gaping holes in her community.

BENNALLY: One time we went down into the mine. It was just scary down there. It seems like there's something was going to grab you. And yet it was something that grabs everybody, that I was thinking, you know, all that uranium thing.

TOLAN: In 1992, Navajo president Peterson Zah signed a moratorium on uranium, declaring the ore would not be mined again on Navajo land until the process can be proved safe. But now, a generation after the last mine closed, there's a new proposal to mine uranium in the Navajo communities of Church Rock and Crownpoint. And it's pitting Navajo against Navajo.

MAN: If you take the time to study the history of my people, you will see all the lies, all the backstabbing, all the destruction and death that non-Indians have caused against my people.

TOLAN: Navajo citizens faced each other at Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings on a proposed new mining operation this fall in Crownpoint.

MAN: Why can't you guys mine in Beverly Hills or New York, or some other place?

(Audience applauds) Why does it have to be our land? Why?!

WOMAN: We want progress. We do not want to stay being poor the rest of our lives. I believe the mine is safe using the new technology, in contrast with the old conventional minings that they had in the past.

TOLAN: The new mines, by HRI Corporation, would be different from the days of Big John and the dogholes. With the new technique, oxygen and sodium bicarbonate would be injected underground into uranium-bearing rock. The uranium would dissolve out of the sandstone and be pumped back to the surface. No miners and no mounds of radioactive tailings waste. HRI President Dick Clement.

CLEMENT: Any thinking person has to be compassionate about what happened in the past, and there were a number of people that worked in those old mines that didn't get proper ventilation. And people, a lot of people got lung cancer from the radon gas that was present. But this type of mining, it mines uranium without having the presence of radon at all. So consequently, the concerns that people have had in the past are not present in this type of operation.

(Paper shuffling)

MAN: Okay, go on to the next place?

MAN 2: Do you want to look around this property at all? Would you like to go have Sal show you…

TOLAN: HRI officials lead supporters, the NRC judge, environmental groups, and anxious citizens on a site tour. We come to a stop between a pair of giant pits lined with black rubber, which would serve as evaporative ponds for the uranium-laced water. Some wonder whether HRI will take a single pound out from under here. Right now there's a glut in the uranium market, and it costs a lot more to mine uranium than it's worth right now. But HRI says the market will pick up, and they want to be ready. So do opponents. They remember the big uranium spill in 1979 in Church Rock. They worry about HRI transporting uranium down a mountain road, about the processing plant being so close to two churches and an elementary school. And especially, one woman tells the HRI representatives, about the water supply.

WOMAN: Well you know, when they had this mine in here several years ago in the 1970s, just 15 miles out of here, Smith Lake, it's true, you know, the water was good at one time there. And now people don't drink it. They come to Crownpoint and haul water, because their water's not good.

MAN: That was a different kind of uranium mining, wasn't it?

MAN 2: Yeah, that was a different kind of uranium mine.

WOMAN: And I guess, you know, that's a big thing for us, too. We don't want that to happen here.

MAN: No, neither do we.

MAN 2: No, and neither do they.

TOLAN: HRI promises it will clean up the underground water contaminated in the leach mining process, and that Crownpoint's water supply will remain untouched. Environmental groups and many residents are skeptical.

LOVEJOY: Even with the best technology they claim will prevent any water contamination, I don't believe that.

TOLAN: On a flat stretch of land west of town, Linda Lovejoy, New Mexico State Representative, stands near the house where she was raised. Her family leases this land from another Navajo family. Beneath our feet lie rich seams of uranium. If the mine does start up, Ms. Lovejoy says her landlords and other Navajo landholders here could stand to make millions of dollars.

LOVEJOY: They're just interested in this whole uranium development for money. And I don't blame them for thinking that way. We are in a very depressed area. Crownpoint and the entire Navajo nation. And people do look for sources, other sources, just to buy food, just to buy clothes for their children. So when somebody offers them money, they'll take it, and they won't think of the future.

JOHNSON: They assured me that everything would, you know, be safe, because otherwise I wouldn't have signed the lease.

TOLAN: Across the fence from Ms. Lovejoy's home, Wilbert Johnson stands near his house amidst two dozen broken-down cars in a kind of open-air garage. Mr. Johnson says he's reassured by the company's promises.

JOHNSON: If it's so bad, why is everybody using it? You know, the Japanese have it and the French are using it, you know. I mean, if we're going to be like you, then, you know, at least give us a break, you know? I mean, if it's safe and if they say it's safe and they've assured us. They have all these people that are engineers and, you know, deal with the mining. To me, it's opportunity for the community. I fix cars for a living, see, and jobs are scarce.

TOLAN: Spark plugs and U-joints and solenoids are scattered on makeshift wooden tables. Mr. Johnson says he and his fellow landholders could use some help for their dreams.

JOHNSON: Here's where I plan to put my shop, see. Be a two-bay shop. Maybe I can have a couple of people working, you know, at that time when things get rolling. I do valve jobs, I do -- if the cylinders aren't bad I go ahead and overhaul, do some overhauls.

(Cricket song)

TOLAN: As we talk the sky turns to fire, then dulls to charcoal. Mr. Johnson says he shouldn't be made to pay for the mistakes of the past.

JOHNSON: Just mining is a lot different from them days. And that's why I feel like, hey, yeah, they should be compensated for what happened to them in them days, yeah, but gee, you can't hold it against everybody else, you know, for the rest of your life. We got to get somewhere, and this is an opportunity.

(Footfalls along the highway)

TOLAN: I remember, back in '82, driving around on certain windy days and seeing yellow sand blowing across the lonely roads. Uranium dust from the piles of tailings that used to lie exposed like great yellow scabs. One day, traveling with an old friend, a photographer, I climbed atop one of those piles, 800,000 tons of uranium waste at the old rare metals mill near Tuba City.

PHOTOGRAPHER: This is like we're on top of the main pile right now. Kicking around tailings. You're kicking around tailings. (Laughs)

TOLAN: We found an old sign facedown in the dirt next to the broken down fence at the rare metals mill. We picked it up and brushed it off. A skull and crossbones stared at us and the words, "Danger: Radioactive." Sheep grazed amidst green pools at the edge of the pile.

PHOTOGRAPHER: I just don't think we should stick around up here too much longer.

TOLAN: Now those tailings have been covered. A lot of the dogholes have been sealed. And many Navajos would like never again to use the word for the yellow ore.

WOMAN: I hate to mention uranium. I know uranium's not good for us. If we start this mine, and what are we going to do? If we're not careful, we're going to make this Crownpoint a ghost town one of these days.

(Silverware clanks)

TOLAN: Before leaving, I had breakfast with the NRC judge who will rule on the new mine proposal. Some worry that the NRC, with its long history with the nuclear industry, can't make a truly independent decision. But over bacon and eggs, the judge told me he knew what had happened here, and how people feel about it. He said he had a special responsibility in this case to make the right decision. Whether to allow uranium to once again be pulled out of the ground beneath the feet of the Navajos. For Living on Earth, this is Sandy Tolan reporting near Crownpoint, New Mexico.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Since we first aired this story, the judge has ruled that at least one of HRI's proposed mines does not pose a threat to human health or the environment. And that the company may go ahead and mine there. But because of a weak uranium market, mining has not begun. The issue remains alive on Capitol Hill. Two members of Congress recently asked President Clinton to sign an Executive Order, which would mandate that no future uranium mining be allowed without the express consent of the Navajo nation.



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